Photo by Mia Park
In 2003 Eric Paul Erickson interviewed me for the Chicago Tribune about my thoughts on bike advocacy and activism. At the time I said, “I think 10 years from now it just won’t make a lot of sense to own a car here.”
Unlike in, say, New York City, certainly Manhattan, car ownership was fairly practical in Chicago back then and it still is today. Although there are plenty of hassles involved, parking is still relatively plentiful, city fees are affordable and gas is currently less than $4 a gallon. Was my prediction unrealistic?
Although I haven’t owned a car since 2000 and for the most part I do just fine getting around Chicago on foot, by bike and on transit, nowadays I try not to be too narrow-minded about other people’s car ownership. Here at Grid Chicago we’re constantly writing posts about the virtues of sustainable transportation and the evils of unbridled car culture. Many of my friends are also car-free, even the ones who are raising families in the city.
But I try to keep an open mind about the fact that cars can be useful for a lot of things and many Chicagoans find them to be a necessary tool for urban life. I do believe there is such a thing as “appropriate” car use and ownership, even in the city. It’s possible to use driving as a mode that can be combined harmoniously with walking, biking and transit as another tool in your Swiss army knife of transportation options.
As it happens, my own experiences with auto ownership in Chicago were fairly disastrous. I lived here without a car for eight years, but in 1997 when a friend of my father offered to sell me his well-preserved gold Mercury Tracer station wagon for $800, I took him up on his offer.
I’ll admit, there were some fun aspects of car ownership in Chicago. I was living in Bridgeport and the time and took a job delivering food for various Hyde Park restaurants with the station wagon. After getting off work on Sundays it was common for me to meet up with friends at the Empty Bottle’s Deadly Dragon Sound System DJ night. Next we might drive up to Devon Street for a late-night Indian snack, after which I’d drop my friends off in Wicker Park and cruise back to the South Side. I enjoyed zooming around large swaths of the city on the nearly empty expressways at night.
But after I returned to bike messenger work a few months later I wasn’t using the car much and it was getting common for the station wagon to be ticketed or towed when I forgot to move it for street cleaning. So I sold the vehicle to my friend J. who used it for touring with his rock band. The following year on a hot summer’s night he called me and another friend, Mia, around midnight to come rescue him. We drove her car out to the Grand/Chicago/Sacramento intersection to find the Mercury flipped upside down in the middle of the intersection and J. largely unscathed. He told us another driver had run a red, smashed into the station wagon and then fled the scene. The Mercury was totaled.
A couple years later I bought an old Chevy Impala for $500 from a New York friend who drove it here on a visit. There were two major problems with this car. It had electrical problems that caused it to regularly stall out, twice requiring expensive towing on frigid winter nights. Also, my friend had neglected to tell me that he didn’t actually have the title to the car – a long story.
Finally, he offered to refund me some of my money if I would drop the car off at a junkyard. The day before I planned to junk the car, a friend and I drove it up to the Chicago Botanic Gardens. It stalled once or twice on the Edens and I was worried that a police officer would come over to help us and discover that I didn’t have the title. We made it to the botanic gardens and paid the steep parking fee, punishment for not taking the pleasant bike ride up the North Branch Trail to the gardens instead.
When we came back to the car at sundown I realized I’d locked the keys in the ignition. I tried to pry the sunroof up to fish for the keys with a long piece of bamboo, and of course the sunroof shattered. As we drove back to the city with a back seat full of broken glass, I was terrified that a cop would pull us over. The next day I found a junkyard that was willing to take the car without the title and paid me $50 – a great relief.
Since then I’ve enjoyed my car-free lifestyle, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of owning an automobile in the future. Although I generally get around fine without one, cars can be handy for road trips, picking up friends, transporting small children and seniors, and hauling band equipment across town. I do occasionally use I-GO car sharing for picking up furniture from Craigslist, large items from the home improvement store, or a keg of home brew donated by a friend for a party. Since there are I-GO vehicles parked a block from my house, it’s a bit more convenient than hitching up my bike trailer.
If I ever do find myself taking care of small children, it may be especially tempting to buy an automobile. Having one car, used sparingly, in a household, might make sense in this situation. However, I’d rather invest a few thousand dollars in a Dutch-style “bakfiets” cargo bike to cart the kids around instead.
But the fact is, almost ten years after I made my prediction, car ownership is still reasonably attractive here and probably still will be in 2013. Aside from Rahm Emanuel’s recent move to tax drivers who park downtown on weekdays, there haven’t been many steps taken to discourage driving here.
But probably one reason why our city still hasn’t reached New York levels of traffic congestion and parking hassles is the rise in the number of people who choose not to bring cars into Chicago and use sustainable transportation instead. And with the city’s recent efforts to promote pedestrian safety and cycling, especially the upcoming 100 miles of protected bicycle lanes and 3,000-vehicle public bike share system, as well as new bus rapid transit pilots, sustainable transportation is bound to become a lot more popular in the coming years.
Maybe I spoke too soon when I said that by 2013 it wouldn’t be practical to own a car in Chicago. But I do believe that after these new measures are implemented it’s going to make even more sense to do the lion’s share of your travel on foot, bike and transit.